First Nations Cuisine Comes to the Culinary Forefront

Across Canada, chefs take inspiration from Aboriginal recipes and traditional ingredients


A reminder: The earth-to-table movement isn’t as new as it might seem. North America’s indigenous people were hunting, gathering and foraging long before urban chefs embraced all of that. The delicious news for diners is that the foraging trend has opened up space for Aboriginal cuisine to emerge in its own right – reinvented for modern tastes, and with inventive twists. Dig into deer carpaccio, bannock pizza and buffalo spring rolls – tantalizing ways to enjoy indigenous staples.

Defining regional specialties

When it comes to defining indigenous cuisine, things can get a bit foggy. There’s no one simple neat answer, and of course there are dozens of First Nations cultures on the continent (to use a term that’s preferred on the Canadian side of the border and is slowly catching on in the United States).

Daniel Wolfman, a classically trained chef who teaches at Toronto’s George Brown College and hosts the television show, Cooking with Wolfman (it airs on APTN in Canada and FNX in the United States) gives it his best shot: “It’s more of a regional cuisine and is reflective of what we ate. What we have now is Aboriginal fusion. It’s modified because our traditional way of cooking didn’t use spices and herbs, for example. Herbs were reserved for medicine.”

Contemporary Aboriginal cuisine ticks all the right boxes among today’s diners and that has sparked a resurgence. “People want to know, ‘What’s in my food?’ and the natural foods from the earth coming forward in our cuisine make a lot of sense right now,” explains Wolfman, a member of the Xaxli’p First Nation in British Columbia.

Those foods can vary depending on what region of Canada they come from and the people sourcing them. The Plains Cree, whose homeland is in present-day Alberta and Saskatchewan, traditionally relied on buffalo meat as the cornerstone of their diets, while the Ojibwe (whose territories stretched from Saskatchewan down to Michigan and eastward into Southern Ontario) ate a mix of farmed and foraged foods, heavy on squash and wild rice. The Lillooet in British Columbia had salmon stocks available. Drying and curing methods ensured fish and meat in steady supply all year round. Chefs like Wolfman have modernized those techniques for contemporary kitchens.

Refined dining

Plenty of restaurants feature First Nations cuisine in the guise of casual fare; more on those in a moment. What’s grabbing attention now is Aboriginal cuisine’s elegant, upscale side, as showcased at a restaurant like La Traite, located in the Hôtel-Musée Premières Nations, about 30 minutes outside of Quebec City. Chef Martin Gagné demonstrates his talent for creating artfully executed dishes just begging to be posted on Instagram, including deer carpaccio served alongside organic cherry jam and blackburn cheese – or, for adventurous palates, seal meat terrine with preserved pearled onions and sea buckthorn chutney.

Wolfman ups his game – in this case, the game is deer – by turning it into what he calls “Nish kabobs” (as in, short for “Anishnabe”; find the recipe here). He marinates the meat for an hour in a mix of pepper, garlic, dijon mustard, birch syrup and balsamic vinegar, before threading the chunks onto skewers, ready to grill.

He points out that Aboriginal cuisine is a cross-country phenomenon and encourages curious eaters to sample the local specialty wherever there are, whether it’s moose or pickerel in northern Ontario, or buffalo from the Saskatchewan. “Try something that didn’t travel far,” he says. “That’s the cornerstone of what makes our cuisine unique.”

A bounty of bannock

If there is one Aboriginal food known widely by the general public, it would be bannock, a type of flat scone made with flour, baking powder, sugar, lard and water or milk. It’s a staple found throughout North American native cuisine. The odd thing about bannock is that it has Scottish roots. It is believed that the Scotts shared the recipe and brought ingredients like baking powder and sugar to indigenous people in North America.

Given the popularity of bannock – sometimes called fry bread, especially when cooked in a pan until crispy – it’s not surprising that it is front and centre on many menus at restaurants specializing in Aboriginal cuisine. At Toronto’s Tea-N-Bannock, bison burgers are served on a bannock bun. The new Feast Café Bistro in Winnipeg uses bannock as a base for pizza, topping it with a white sauce, roasted butternut squash, mozzarella, cheddar, toasted pine nuts and a chipotle sour cream drizzle. There’s also a stripped down version made with herbs.

In Sault Ste. Marie, the freshly opened Kokom’s Bannock Shack proudly announces its signature item right in the name. It offers bannock dogs, meatloaf with bannock chunks and cooked-to-order bannock desserts; the “Kokom’s delight” is piled high with ice cream, deep fried wild rice and strawberry sauce.  If visiting you might get lucky and arrive on moose ball day – that means bannock spheres covered in cinnamon, sugar and caramel.

Herbed bannock

At Burger Barn at the Six Nations reserve near Brantford, Ont., fry bread turns into a handy taco shell, overflowing with chili, cheese, lettuce, onions and tomatoes and sour cream. The best way to eat it is with a cup of homemade strawberry juice, another traditional food.

In Victoria, the newly launched Songhees Seafood and Steam food truck lets the goodness of fresh bannock shine through with a simple gluten-free offering, slathered with house-made blackberry preserves or roasted apple butter. Also of note is its candied smoked sockeye salmon and the mushroom and brie burger with roasted corn salsa – served on bannock bread, of course.

The scoop on soup

Aside from bannock, if you’re foraying into the world of First Nations food, put three sisters soup, a popular dish in Aboriginal kitchens, on your must-eat list. It’s a hearty choice built around the traditional “three sisters” of North American farming – the nutritious trio of corn, beans and squash.

A refined variation of the soup is found at Sagamité in Wendake, Que. (near Quebec City). It’s made with ingredients that the restaurant grows itself. In Winnipeg, the restaurant in the Aboriginal-owned Neechi Commons, which serves as a community centre/art  gallery/grocery store, makes a rustic homemade three sisters soup, alongside elk burgers and bison stew. If you’re short on time, order it to take out.

With so much Aboriginal cuisine now available across the country, Canadians have many options for exploring the original field-to-fork movement. As chef Wolfman says, “There has never been a better time to eat food with such strong links to the earth.”

First Nations Cuisine Comes to the Culinary Forefront
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